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contributed talk
Workshop: The Neglected Assumptions In Causal Inference

Theo Saarinen -- Nonparametric identification is not enough, but randomized controlled trials are

Theo Saarinen


We argue that randomized controlled trials (RCTs) are special even among settings where average treatment effects are identified by a nonparametric unconfoundedness assumption. We argue that this claim follows from two results of Robins and Ritov (1997): (1) with at least one continuous covariate control, no estimator of the average treatment effect exists which is uniformly consistent without further assumptions, (2) knowledge of the propensity score yields a consistent estimator and confidence intervals at parametric rates, regardless of how complicated the propensity score function is. We emphasize the latter point, and note that successfully-conducted RCTs provide knowledge of the propensity score to the researcher. We discuss modern developments in covariate adjustment for RCTs, noting that statistical models and machine learning methods can be used to improve efficiency while preserving finite sample unbiasedness. We conclude that statistical inference may be fundamentally more difficult in observational settings than it is in RCTs, even when all confounders are measured.